Sioux Falls, SD -- One of the most storied women's basketball programs in history has done it again -- this time in Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. No. 7 Tennessee defeated No. 3 Ohio State 78-62 to make it to the Volunteers' fifth Elite Eight in six seasons, and tenth victory over the Buckeyes in the two teams' last 11 meetings (three in the postseason).
According to UT Sports, the Lady Volunteers' stellar record boasts 18 Final Four appearances and 13 championship berths, both more than any other NCAA women's basketball program. Overall, Tennessee has now reached the regional final round a compelling 28 times.
"These kids come to Tennessee because of our tradition, but they have to make their own legacy," said Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick. "We talked a lot about not focusing on the past or what's ahead of us in the future; just stay in this moment. I think that's what they've done. We understand the tradition of Tennessee, but it's up to us to carry that on.
"I think these young ladies have always understood it, but they're doing something about it."
It was Tennessee that took a commanding lead at the start of the first quarter, jumping out to a 19-7 lead. The Big Orange finished the first period at 23-10 thanks in large part to a 10-point first quarter performance by sophomore Mercedes Russell.
She and senior Bashaara Graves combined for 25 first-half points and 12 rebounds, while the entire Ohio State team only tallied 11. Russell sealed up her 11th double-double on the season with career highs of 25 total points and 15 total rebounds.
"Just think we've seen different defensive sets from teams in the past couple games," Russell said. "I think that's really opened up a lot in the paint, not just for Bashaara and I, but also our guards attacking off the drive and the dribble. I think it's just because of the defensive sets we've been seeing."
Ohio State began the second period on a 9-3 run before Tennessee picked their play back up. However, it was the Lady Volunteers who would set the mood going into the half on a layup by sophomore Diamond DeShields with five seconds remaining. DeShields played against former Norcross High School (Ga.) teammate and Ohio State junior forward Shayla Cooper, who had six steals on the night and two in the second quarter alone.
The Buckeyes would not be able to overcome the Lady Volunteers and would succumb to the 13-point deficit created in the first as well as completing the team's third-worst shooting percentage of the season. Had Ohio State not dug themselves a hole, the Buckeyes could have contended with Tennessee in points.
Tennessee racked up 53 total rebounds on the night compared to Ohio State's 26 and more than doubled the Buckeyes' points in the paint at 50-22. Ohio State's 62 points marks its second-lowest scoring output of the season.
Both teams put up dismal performances beyond the arc, but Ohio State's 26.7% on 30 attempts illustrates the team's struggle due to a tight zone defense run by Tennessee -- something Warlick rarely ever employs.
"We stretched our defense," Warlick said. "We were around (Mitchell) wherever she was. Look, I know we weren't going to limit her points, but we just wanted to contain her. Normally you'd say 20 points, you're not real happy, but for just allowing Mitchell 20 points, I'm thrilled with it."
Ohio State finishes their season with a 26-8 record, adding to their résumé the team's first Sweet 16 appearance in five years. The Buckeyes were led by sophomore Kelsey Mitchell with 20 points and senior Ameryst Alston with 21 points. Alston notched five 3-pointers in her last game with the Buckeyes.
"They got off to such a great start and really established themselves around the basket," said Ohio State head coach Kevin McGuff. "That shook us a little bit. The other thing is we didn't get enough stops or rebounds or steals to get ourselves in transition to get the game we wanted it.
"Their size and strength around the basket certainly altered the game. I think that was ultimately the difference."
Tennessee advances to the Sioux Falls Regional championship game at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday against No. 4 Syracuse, who earlier tonight upset No. 1 South Carolina. The two teams met previously on Nov. 20, 2015, in Knoxville, Tennessee and saw the Lady Volunteers edge out a close one at 57-55.